It's once again that time of year when I am simultaneously enchanted and overwhelmed by the choices I have in my forthcoming 2011 vegetable garden. I tend to read every word of at least four or five catalogs. But once again, Fedco reminds me why it gets most of my business, despite the lack of glossy photographs, despite the fact that it sits on cheap newsprint: It's the only catalog that really charms me.
First of all it has a voice. It's personal. It's opinionated. It's not sterile and corporate, and neither is my vegetable garden. I look forward to founder CR Lawn's letter every year, which freely dispenses gardening wisdom. Here is how CR reconciles two wildly opposed gardening seasons in the Northeast, the horrible 2009 and the magical 2010, in this year's catalog: "As Joe Kurland, my neighbor in the Colrain, MA hill country averred shortly after I moved into the area, 'There is no such thing as a normal year here.' And probably not where you farm or garden either."
But you can also count on some politics from CR, too: "Even if we wished, we can't go back to an economy based on unsustainable levels of credit. We lack the means and we lack the confidence. On our farms, trickle-down may be a good way to irrigate, but in our economy it is only a good way to irritate. No wonder our political discourse leads us to one sullen ill-mannered impasse after another!"
The variety descriptions don't pussyfoot around either. The catalog is not afraid to sway you from one variety to another, but will tell you what has proved the best tasting in the Fedco people's gardens, their friends' gardens, their customers' gardens. Of course, that doesn't mean any particular variety will prove the best tasting in MY garden, but I like to know about other gardeners' experiences. I like to know that there ARE gardeners behind a seed catalog.
These people are also cooks and eager eaters, too. I like learning that the flower buds of 'Bordeaux' spinach are tasty braised, or that root parsley adds a parsley/celery note to soups, or that 'Amplissimo Viktoria' peas make a great hummus. This is very important information to a vegetable gardener, more important arguably than the cultural information that other catalogs focus on.
At the same time, the selection is really good. At 137 pages long, illustrated with no giant photographs, but just amusing old-timey drawings and etchings, it will give you plenty of entertainment, both on the couch and in the garden.
New Scientist has a really fun cover story this week, "Dawn of the Plantimals," by Debora MacKenzie and Michael LePage that looks at photosynthesizing animals.
A number of animals derive some of their energy from sunlight by hosting algae on or in their bodies, including giant sea clams, sea slugs, coral, anemones and jellyfish. Most interesting is a salamander that stores algae in its oviduct. The algae then grow inside the salamander's eggs as well as on them, presumably offering the embryos a meal. Other creatures use cyanobacteria–photosynthesizing bacteria–to turn sunlight into energy.
It may be possible to engineer this nifty trick into animals that today have to eat their dinner. For example, a researcher at Harvard Medical School has injected cyanobacteria into the eggs of zebrafish. Both fish and bacteria lived. Done right, this kind of thing might someday produce backyard koi that require slightly less of that expensive Japanese koi food.
Among the problems with photosynthesis in animals is that it requires damaging exposure to UV radiation and heat, which is why all photosynthesizing animals are water-dwellers. Another problem? Photosynthesis produces junk food–sugars.
Still, the fact that some animals use sunlight to generate food, as plants do, is a reminder of biologist Lynn Margulis' idea that all labels are problematic.
In Symbiotic Planet, she writes, "Our classifications blind us to the wildness of natural organization by supplying conceptual boxes to fit our preconceived ideas….We can group life into three or five or a million categories, but life itself will elude us."
Plants versus animals? Of course there are green creatures that reside in the grey areas!
So this is interesting. Scientific Certification Systems has a "pesticide residue free" certification program that either organic or non-organic growers can participate in. The idea is that no matter how you grow your food, as long as it's free of residues when it goes to market, it will be more appealing to people who, say, are concerned about possible links between pesticide exposure and ADHD or other such things.
The risk, of course, with all of these certifications is that it will be too much for the harried shopper to wade through. What do these labels really mean, what do they really guarantee, etc. etc.
Now, in the case of SCS, I have some personal experience with them because I talked to them while they were developing the VeriFlora standard for flowers. Navigating the line between "organic" and "sustainable" is never easy, but SCS has made a go at it with a number of products, from coffee to timber to flowers.
And now the latest news is that the "certified pesticide residue free" label can also include ornamental plants (see press release PDF here). From the press release:
The expansion of this certification allows horticultural producers to assure their customers that their flowering and ornamental plants are of the highest quality and safe for their homes and gardens. …While consumers have long demanded safety certification for food products, they are now seeking transparency in other products that have traditionally brought pesticides into their homes. Buying Pesticide Free plants helps minimize the risk of exposing pets and family to harmful pesticides.
So what do we think? Is this a good thing? Are you more likely to buy, say, a ficus tree, a boxwood, a rose bush, or a poinsettia, if it comes with a "pesticide residue free" label? When you're buying ornamental plants, do you think about organic at all? And if you do–are you thinking about your own safety, or about the safety of the workers in the greenhouse, the river that runs behind the greenhouse, and the overall greater good? Or both?
I was first introduced to LED grow lights in Alaska when I went to visit garden writer Jeff Lowenfels. He had one little pepper plant under an LED grow light, and let me tell you, that plant was blooming and fruiting like nothing you've ever seen. He invited me to count the number of peppers emerging from the plant; I lost count after twenty. And you have to think about what it's like to crave fresh produce in Alaska, where everything's got to be shipped in or grown in a greenhouse most of the year. I could just see what those bright, spicy peppers would mean on a dark, cold, short Alaska winter day.
So when I got one of these Sonnylight LED grow lights to try out, I had already bought into the concept. The LED lights are highly efficient–lasting 75,000 hours or about 15 years (according to Sonnylight's website), and a unit like this costs less than $1 per month to operate–not exactly an energy hog. They give off no heat, meaning no wasted energy and also no risk of scorching the plants.
And–here's the key thing–those red and blue lights? They change depending on the light needs of the plant. You use these programmable buttons to tell the light what kind of plant you're growing–does it fruit or just leaf out, for instance–and it will adjust the red/blue wavelengths to give the plant the kind of light it needs most as it moves through different phases of growth.
Below is the kitchen garden unit. The light moves up and down its post so that it can be raised up to 28 inches high as the plants grow. No tools are needed to adjust the light–it's got a clever rubber thingy that holds it in place, and you just gently rock the light hood back and forth to raise or lower it. I didn't have anything particularly rare or unusual I was trying to nurture through the winter, so I put some pots of herbs under the lights–cilantro, parsley, etc–just to see how they do.They look great and I love that I've got lots of leaves and no flowers.
You can also get the light by itself to hang on wires and suspend above, say, a larger houseplant or an indoor citrus tree.
And one more thing–every bit of the packaging can be composted. All of it. No plastic, no styrafoam. Reusable (or compostable) cloth bags protect the sensitive bits, and it's all packed into this cardboardy stuff that will quickly become worm food.
Oh, and it just takes a couple of minutes to put together–no tools needed, except for a little Allen wrench, which is included.
So. What do I think? Well, frankly, it's a pretty awesome little gadget. Well thought-out, nicely designed, simple to use, all that. And unlike shop lights, it's slick and pretty enough to sit in the kitchen or living room.
The only thing that's going to give most of you pause is the price. At $300 ($250 for the hanging version), this is not a casual expenditure. I try to justify larger garden purchases by amortizing them over time: if this light lasts the expected 15 years, that's $20 per year, plus a miniscule energy cost. From that perspective, it seems like $20 per year could buy me a lot of fun in the winter.
Now, keep in mind that the real benefit of this kind of LED light as opposed to the $40-$50 versions you might see in hydroponic shops is that the colors change to encourage the kind of growth you want. Seed-starting, vegetative growth, flowering, fruiting–you can change the light settings, or let the pre-programmed settings change over time for you.
I'll definitely start some seeds under this light in early spring, and since I've used the shop lights before, I'll have some basis for comparison. And I might try detaching the light and hanging it above one of my indoor citrus trees, too, just to see how that goes. I'll report back.
What are your thoughts about these LED lights? Let me know.
AND–I think–I think–we have one of these to give away, but as of this very moment I haven't confirmed it. So don't comment to win at this moment–I'll do a separate post if, in fact, we can give one away.
As some of you know, I planted a poison garden while I was working on Wicked Plants. I'd never grown, much less seen, some of the plants in the book, and it's just too weird to write about plants you don't know. So I managed to come up with about 35 species that I could actually grow in my climate, in a small secluded garden, without inflicting too much harm on anyone (poison oak, for instance, was not invited.)
And you know what? Some of those plants were very pretty. Castor bean! Datura! Opium poppy! Foxglove! Tobacco! Lovely, really. Not suitable as an entree, but lovely nonetheless.
So imagine my excitement when Botanical Interests offered to put those very plants together in a Wicked Plants seed collection. The impetus for this is the upcoming Wicked Plants exhibit at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers–more about that in the coming months–this gives them a little something extra to sell in the gift shop and support their fine work.
(Botanical Interests, by the way, does a lot to support the fine work of botanical gardens. Have you seen their Botanic Garden Series in partnership with Denver Botanic Gardens?)
So. Here, just in time for your last-minute holiday shopping: the Wicked Plants Seed Collection. Here's what you get: Datura meteloides, foxglove 'Gloxiniiflora' blend, Nicotiana sylvestris, two poppies (Double Peony and Hungarian Blue), and a castor bean 'Impala'.
And yes, we've got a collection to give away. You know what to do. Comment to win; extra credit for limericks involving poisonous plants,poison gardens, or other horticultural mishaps.
Oh, and let me just add–I'm not making money off this; I was just happy to see it happen so that the Conservatory would have a revenue-generator for their gift shop next year. If Botanical Interests does well with it, all the better. And if you happen to know a shop that would like to carry the collection, have them contact Botanical Interests and make it so.
We’ve all been hearing about a leaked EPA memo that appeared a few days ago, linking colony collapse disorder to Bayer CropScience and the pesticide clothianidin, which the company wants to use on mustard seed and cotton. This pesticide attacks the nervous system of insects; it is used to treat seeds, but spreads to all parts of the plant as it grows. It is sold under the name Deter. As reported in Farmer’s Guardian in 2006: “Bayer is recommending Deter seed treatments for use in early drilled and low seed rate crops and crops drilled at conventional timings where slugs and wireworm pose a threat to establishment.” The November 2010 EPA memo admitted that their testing did not demonstrate that the pesticide would be safe for honeybees.
Bayer was supposed to run comprehensive safety tests on clothianidin in 2004, but never did, completely, and the chemical has been in use ever since with little or no evidence that it is safe. All this has happened under the not-so-watchful eye of the EPA.
And there’s more—apparently other chemicals from this family, called neonicotinoids, have been in use for over 15 years. A Colorado beekeeper, Tom Theobald, who now loses 30–40% of his hives per year, exposed the memo, the story of which has been quickly spreading over the interwebs. Barbara/Mr. McGregor’s Daughter drew my attention to it. Feel free to google—I can’t detail the whole saga in a post, and there are other links.
Although almost all gardeners I know—including our online community here—have largely rejected the use of poisons to keep our gardens going, we live within a larger agricultural/garden industry world where it’s still a way of life. Just the other day, I was buying some indoor plants at a local nursery, and noticed an employee recommending Ortho-whatever to another customer, who bought it and probably sprayed it inside his house, where his family and pets will be inhaling it along with some wretched plant infested by 2 spider mites.
And then there is the Western New York nursery and landscaping association, who actually protested a recent ban on playground pesticide use in New York State. Playgrounds. Not to mention Canada Blooms, the Toronto garden show that declined to show the movie Chemical Reaction, even though it only tells the story of how pesticides came to be banned in parts of Canada. Where Canada Blooms takes place.
Gardening world, listen up! If you haven't yet heard Andrew Keys's new podcast for Horticulture Magazine, you are in for a treat – and a surprise. It's really good and in a really new way. A big fan of Ira Glass and "This American Life", his aim is to tell stories about the intersection of plants and people. Not how-to's or tips, but stories. He told me he "wanted to take it up a notch", and after hearing just 2 episodes I can say he's done that in this one-man-show, where he does it all, including Lord knows how many hours of editing and adding sound effects. You can listen for yourself right here or subscribe to RadioGarden here on iTunes.
The second episode includes interviews with gardening-obsessed Mindy Arbo and Dudley Cotton, whose garden you see below and on their cleverly named website – Cotton-Arbo retum.
What's next on Garden Radio? Amy Stewart, Ivette Soler, a profile of his mother's cotton-farming family, and talking to folks at the Harvard Herbarium about plant exploration If you have a story to tell about plants and gardening, Andrew says he'd LOVE to hear about it – just email him at email@example.com.
The Unofficial Resume
From his bio we learn that he "was born in the bottomlands of Mississippi, a stone’s throw from New Orleans" and was "descended from dairymen, cotton and cane farmers." He's always been crazy about plants but took a different turn in college, studying journalism and public relations (U.Memphis), then moved to Boston where he wrote for PR Newswire. Then for a career change he studied architecture, but quickly veered to environmental policy (at Tufts), which got him closer (finally) to the plant world. His resume also includes 10 years of web design, which he still does. (See examples on the website of his tech partner).
Then in 2009, because everybody was telling him he should design gardens, he started his design business where he gets to combine his loves for plants, design AND environmental advocacy. Currently he's pursuing a certificate in native plant horticulture and design from the New England Wildflower Society.
Andrew's a big fan of networking – online and in person – because so many opportunities have come to him via Twitter and attending just one Garden Writers meeting (where he met Horticulture's Patty Craft). Andrew also blogs at Garden Smackdown, where he dares to go off-topic any time he gets the urge. He's also one of the gang at the Garden Designers Roundtable.
Suddeny, Andrew Keys is everywhere! And gardening is more interesting for it - and a lot hipper.
So what's next for the multi-talented Mr. Keys? More of everything, including travel – to Santa Fe for Christmas and Buenas Aires in the spring.
Photo of the Cotton-Arbo retum by permission. I am SO visiting this always-open garden the next time I'm in Boston!
Writer Joel Lerner has added another twist to the mystery of the Plan to Kill Beloved Azaleas at the National Arboretum (the gardening world around DC has talked about nothing else for days now). Click here to read Joel's passionate defense of the Arboretum's azaleas and boxwoods, at the end of which he drops this intriguing little nugget:
People who support reducing the number of plant collections at the Arboretum believe that the garden administration has finally come to its senses and that these changes would allow more native plants to be installed.
So contrary to speculation, it may not be bureaucratic in-fighting after all, but something bigger – disapproval of "alien" plants.
In any event, special interests and general Arboretum watchers alike are now discussing the options openly and making their wishes known. I just hope the Arb has learned its lesson about trying to take drastic, irreversible actions in secret. For crissakes.
I am really getting tired of reading newspapers, magazines and books that tell us we should not use Canadian spaghnum peat moss in our landscapes because it is not a renewable resource. That, my friends is a bunch of hokum. This nonsense has been promulgated consistently for 20 years. How long does it take writers to begin doing some basic research and find they are completely wrong.
And now we have the new website Landscape for Life sponsored by people supposedly in the know, including the United States Botanical Garden, telling us again to avoid using Canadian peat moss.
Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.
This information has been readily available for 20 years from the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. The bugaboo in all this is that in Europe peat moss is definitely not a renewable resource. As soon as a writer reads about European peat moss, they extend the same assumption over to the Canadian peat. At least now everybody in southeastern Michigan knows the straight skinny.
I have always been high on using peat moss for various tasks each season:
1. If you don’t have chopped leaves to leave on your lawn each fall, a mixture of peat moss and some compost is just as good. Buy a bale of peat moss and mix it with a couple of bags of compost like Organimax. Spread the mixture over the lawn with a grass rake in a layer thin enough so you can’t see it. That combination becomes food for the soil food web over the winter.
2. If you have compacted clay soil, mixing in a good dose of peat moss will help to keep that clay soil from compacting and become a good place to raise plants. Peat moss stores an enormous amount of water but at the same time drains very well.
3. Any quality commercial potting mix is composed primarily of Canadian peat moss. Avoid any mixes containing sedge peat moss also called Michigan peat.
All too often our misguided writers recommend replacing peat moss with a product called “coir” that is made from crushed coconut shells. Most of it comes from Indonesia, so the carbon foot-print for coir is very high because it has to be shipped a long distance. It has a much higher salt content than does peat moss. And finally, most of the coconut groves producing coir require cutting down the rain forest to create the space for the trees.
So now you know why I prefer to use Canadian spaghnum peat moss in my lawn and gardens.
Jeff Ball is a freelance garden writer living in the Detroit region.
My daughter Grace plants the orange pumpkins in our household, which are used for Jack-o'-lanterns.
I plant for flavor, and I am a blue-green convert. The most delicious of all pumpkins, in my opinion, is an Australian variety called 'Jarrahdale', the smoother-skinned, lighter blue variety in the photo above.
Cut it open, and it has beautiful orange walls, super-thick, with a relatively small seed cavity. And most important for pies is the fact that it is not watery or stringy: custards are ruined by watery or stringy pumpkin. It roasts up perfectly creamy, with a sweet pure flavor. (If you have never tasted pie made with homegrown pumpkin, you have not tasted pumkin pie. It bears no resemblance to the leaden pie made with canned pumpkin.)
This year, I also planted a variety I ordered from Seeds from Italy called 'Marina di Chioggia' that I am suddenly seeing everywhere, in every seed catalog and gardening magazine.
Clearly, that's because it is so unbelievably photogenic, it's practically a supermodel or David Beckham: really, really big, really, really warty, really, really blue with a bit of a turbanesque bottom. It's also a really productive garden plant. I got a nice haul from just two vines. I just cooked up my first 'Marina di Chioggia', which weighed so much, I could hardly lift the thing out of the cellar. Delicious, but different than 'Jarrahdale'. It's browner when cooked, with a slightly heavier, more sweet-potatoish texture. And since the great Elizabeth Schneider of the encyclopedia Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini informs me that pumpkins can have a chestnut flavor, I'll hazard this thought: It tastes like chestnuts.
Pumpkins are a wonderful in that they are easy to store. Unlike a lot of vegetables, they won't object to warm temperatures and will last a long time even on a countertop–longer, if you put them in the basement.
They are easy to store after they're cooked, too. You might get four pies out of a single pumpkin, but it you are not making four pies, roasted pumpkin freezes really well. I'll often just lazily shove an entire quarter of roasted pumpkin, skin and all, into a bag and into the freezer.
I use pumpkins mainly for soup, pies, and risotto with prosciutto. My friend Martha, a former chef, has been experimenting with savory custards for her 'Jarrahdales.' I was at dinner two weeks ago when she served one made with wild mushrooms. Spectacular.
The only problem with pumpkins in the garden–other than their typical cucurbit unwillingness to do anything until the soil has warmed up–is the amount of space they require. In a small garden, they will gladly overrun everything, with their giant leaves and ropelike vines.
I've been kicking mine out of the garden in recent years, into a meadow where the weeds are either beaten down from sitting under my mulch pile or mowed once by my husband. I'll expose a little soil with a pick, make little mounds for the seeds, mulch around them with a lot of hay, and then forget about them all summer. I have to hunt for the pumpkins among the goldenrod and Joe Pye Weed in early October, but they are always there.
In 2008, we asked Rant readers where they stood on Twitter and Facebook, and here are some of the responses we got:
I just really don’t understand Twitter. I mean, I get how it works. It’s the *why* that gives me problems.
Twitter? Let’s just say that my take on it is that it’s for the birds.
I recently acquired a Facebook page, but I’m darned if I know what to do with it.
it’s just one more freaking thing to keep up with–which is why I won’t be on a garden site or twitter or digg or whatever… I DO have a life.
And so on. I have not given the names of these commenters, but I know that a couple of them are now seen regularly on one social network or another. As are most of us. What a difference a couple of years makes! Even Michele has been won over by Twitter (but not by Facebook), while Amy, Susan, and I have been habitués of both networks for a while now. (The collective Rant account tweets posts, and occasionally answers tweets aimed at it, if one of us sees them.)
I love Facebook for a number of reasons but am not a regular tweeter—just when I feel like it. I also have some problems with tweets aimed at either my Buffalo followers and my garden followers. They usually don’t make sense to one of the groups. It happens on FB too.
But this is what I’d like to know.
1. Are there any diehard social network abominators still left out there?
2. Who is on twitter and/or facebook several times day and loves it? Or is it just one or the other?
3. Who keeps up their twitter and/or facebook accounts out of obligation—i.e., as part of career-related endeavors?
4. Who is trying to keep up with it all, but still finds the whole thing kind of annoying?
Is a mixture of some of the above? Oh, and what was it that won you over—or was it more like giving in?
So here's what I find interesting about this Monrovia story, from a gardener's perspective.
Monrovia is a big ol' grower of popular and familiar plants, and you know how I feel about popular and familiar plants, especially when they've got a corporate logo plastered across the pot. Mass-produced. Predictable. Etc etc.
And now the banks are telling them they need to sell some plants, real quick-like, to improve their financial situation. So Monrovia sent letters to their retailers asking them to please order a bunch of plants by the end of January or else bad things could happen. (Read the whole story here; use the nearly-invisible scroll bar on the right to see the story)
So here's what's interesting about Monrovia: They only sell to independent garden centers, and seem truly committed to helping IGCs survive by offering them a good selection of the sort of "backbone" plants any garden center would need to sell. IGCs seem to like them and want to continue to do business with them–in response to the possibility that Monrovia would be forced to sell in big box stores to satisfy the banks, a letter from 75 IGCs said, "We, as Independent Nurseries, cannot afford this to happen. We agree that we shall increase our spring bookings by a significant amount to help Monrovia Growers reach their goal." (Oh, and memo to banks: Selling your products in big box stores only drives down prices and quality, leading to a race to the bottom that will not help the company. Just saying.)
And here's the other thing: I met a Monrovia representative once and I went off (as I always do) about sustainability in the nursery industry, and how plant growers need to be looking at growing their plants organically or at least in some manner that's closer to organic, and guess what the rep said? They already do. You can read about it here, but what gardener is going to go to the trouble to search this out on the website? Why isn't their green strategy more obvious to gardeners?
And for that matter, where do gardeners fit into this whole "please buy $20 million worth of plants by January or we're in big trouble" situation? Because doesn't somebody need to get into the garden centers and buy those plants once they arrive?
Monrovia has just over 500 Twitter followers (using not its name but PlantSavvy as its Twitter handle) and 111 Facebook fans, to which it delivers desultory garden tips like "Foundation plants are the bones of the garden, providing structure and shape. Watch our video for tips."
So why, in this moment of crisis, doesn't Monrovia have 20,000 avid gardeners on Twitter and Facebook they can mobilize to get into garden centers to move these products along? I gotta say, if Annie ever dropped a hint that they needed to sell some plants in order to pay the rent, I'd be the first to order a few plants and beg my friends to do the same. I've got your back, girlfriend. (and if you think 20,000 followers is unrealistic for a company like Monrovia, my publisher has 49,612 followers on Twitter and over 2000 Facebook fans.)
I'm not saying that putting out an SOS to customers is always a healthy business strategy. Maybe they spin it another way. A sale, a coupon, buy one-get-one-free, a garden makeover contest you have to visit an IGC to enter. Something.
And I'm not even saying that social media in particular is the missing piece here. Monrovia has an email newsletter, a website, ads in magazines, etc. I'm just saying–what now? You got the IGCs to up their orders. Now who mobilizes the passionate plant people and gets them in to buy those plants and stick them in the ground, so that Monrovia–and the IGCs–survive?
Much will be said in the coming weeks and months about Michele Owen's amazing new book Grow the Good Life, most of it by me. (With that link I send you to IndieBound, the website of independent booksellers, in hopes that you will pre-order a copy through your local bookstore and let them know that you feel this is a book they will need to order in significant quantity come February, when it is released.)
Anyway, the book, which I read as a galley (and you can, too, if you're in the media and casting about for books to review), is about the most beautifully-written, entertaining, and literary argument in favor of vegetable gardening that you will ever read. No charts or tables here; no lists of instructions; no silly diagrams or seasonal checklists. (I hope to never see another seasonal checklist again. Is that too much to ask? I fear it is.)
Michele's book got me all fired up about re-establishing a vegetable garden in my backyard, in spite of the chickens, and in spite of the year-round chilly Pacific air that keeps me from growing tomatoes and other things I really want. Potatoes! Kale! Peas! What's wrong with that? Grow what works, and lots of it. That's what I took away from Michele's book. Since moving to Eureka, my vegetable garden shrunk from dozens of ambitious beds to a few edibles tucked here and there. But it was time to change all that.
Then I got home and found out that I'm hardly going to be around at all next year. So this would be a vegetable garden that my husband would have to take care of while I travel. Hardly seems fair.
So my edible madness has gone in a new direction: fruit! Perennial, easy-to-neglect fruit. You might think fruit trees require a lot of care and monitoring; you would be wrong about that. My apple trees don't even get watered anymore–even the local apple farmers have taken to watering their orchards only two or three times during our rainless summers, and they have to make a living from their apples. Mine get no water, no pest or disease control, and a little food or mulch if I happen to think of it.
So. With the help of Timber Press' Growing Citrus: The Essential Gardener's Guide, I selected four citrus trees that I'm hoping will be happy as houseplants. (Martin Page, author of this book, cautions against this on the grounds that they need more light, but they've got my best south-facing windows, so we'll see about that.) From the incomparable Four Winds Growers I have ordered:
A Meyer Improved lemon
A Bearss lime
A calamondin (acidy orange fruit that can sub for a lime and produces year-round indoors)
A chinotto, the sour orange fruit that shows up in Campari and other such liqueurs.
This just in: Monrovia, facing a serious cash crunch, has asked garden centers to hurry up and order some plants so they can raise the $20 million the banks want to see on their balance sheet by January. According to the story, the banks also want to see them sell to the big box chains, but Monrovia remains committed to independent garden centers.
Before my local cultural funding controversy—which included money for our historic botanical gardens—dies away (big fuss made, funding restored, end of story one hopes), I am sharing some further thoughts on this recurring phenomenon. Because it's been happening since I began to notice—sometime in the late 80s—and will continue to happen all over the U.S., especially as state and local economies continue their downward path.
First, it's always been a fight over pennies and it always will be. One legislator here made the comment, “Every year we end up arguing for 6 weeks over less than 1 percent of the budget.” It was the same with the big federal controversy over the NEA about 20 years ago. At the time, the entire NEA budget was the same as the cost of painting—not building, painting—a B-1B bomber. Yet the argument over this funding was front-page news for months, as congressman after congressman inveighed against the evils of Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. Everyone knew that including or not including this money would have no effect on the overall budget whatsoever. But maybe that was the point—to keep voters distracted while the larger problems of why and how and on what our resources are spent were left unaddressed. And what else weren't we paying attention to while that was going on?
Having worked closely with our city officials on a couple projects, I always find that government bureaucracies are very good at doing a little with a lot. That's why I lack sympathy for them when it comes to these issues. On the other hand, I find that—having worked for a museum for 10 years—art museums (and botanical gardens and historical societies and theaters) must of necessity excel at doing a lot with very little. Every penny of whatever funding comes in has to be accounted for in triplicate, but the amazing thing is how much programming, much of it in the form of education and outreach, comes out of that tiny bucket of money.
Which makes it all the more insulting that arts and culture are basically treated in the U.S. as distractions rather than efficiently-run and essential elements of everything that makes living in any community worthwhile. They provide substance in a society where substance is increasingly lacking. The Europeans are better at recognizing this.
I guess all we can hope for is that our botanical gardens, libraries, and museums will continue to be funded, because if that funding stopped, everyone would have to pay attention to our real fiscal problems. In such a grim reality, we'd need those institutions more than ever.
Gordon Clark is the founder and Project Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens. A lifelong activist and organizer, Gordon served as the national Executive Director of Peace Action, the nation's largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization, from 1996 to 2001, followed by three years as the national Field Director for the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen, and then Project Coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in 2007. He ran for Congress in 2008 to help bring attention to the issue of global warming. Gordon is a frequent public speaker and writer, including a regular column for Montgomery County's Voice newspaper. He grows vegetables feverishly in two community gardens.
Now does that look like the resume of a gardening activist? That was my first reaction when he contacted me in '09 to help with his new mission – promoting the growing of food in our county. Peace activist/candidate for U.S.Congress/gardening advocate – what does that tell us about the growing attention to the need to improve our food?
Anyway, he's doing a bang-up job, promoting not just school gardens but gardens wherever there's available land. (My favorite example is the network of congregational gardens he's created – think of those big church lawns just waiting to be made productive!) And as he draws me into his band of rabble-rowsing compatriots, my world becomes more interesting and decidedly more fun. In this photo taken at Thanksgiving dinner this year (which I was happy to be a part of), Gordon is showing off the salad he made and grew himself, every delicious leaf of it!
When will access to affordable, fresh, healthy food, including the ability to grow it or know the people who grow it, be recognized as a basic human right? Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it?
And in the midst of the snowballing good food movement, surely everyone would have to be pro-fresh food in a nice liberal area like my home of Montgomery County, Maryland, right?
Montgomery Victory Gardens was founded a little over a year ago with a mission to build a more sustainable, self-reliant, local food system here in Montgomery County – local food being the freshest and healthiest you can get. And we figured that, given the nation's skyrocketing incidence of diet-related childhood obesity and diabetes (sometimes referred to as "diabesity") and the rapidly growing school vegetable garden movement intended to confront this crisis, our own public school system would be a logical place to start.
But what we discovered, incredibly enough, was a de facto ban on school vegetable gardens, led by a Facilities Director (since departed) who referred to himself in public as "the black hole" into which applications for school veggie gardens would disappear. We started putting pressure on our County Council, which held a hearing, and then on the Board of Education. This proved enough of an irritant that the school system's superintendent stepped up to explain why veggie gardens – almost universally seen as great boons to a school learning environment, not to mention to children's health and well-being – were not allowed on school property. Incredibly enough, he portrayed them as hazards. (Food allergies and pest infestations were two prominent concerns, all empirical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.)
It seems that a lot of groups in our county found this as outrageous as we did, because when we teamed up with the county's Master Gardeners to draft an open letter calling for an end to the ban, we got more than 30 community organizations, including our county's health commission, to sign on.
I am delighted to report that while the school system may not yet have religion on the issue of edible school gardens, they have at least seen the light, (or perhaps felt the heat?), because we are now working with them to create policy and guidelines for vegetable gardens.
Throughout this campaign we've been emotionally buoyed by First Lady Michelle Obama's very public advocacy for school gardens, which I've been only too happy to use as a rhetorical truncheon against nonbelievers. (As in "My goodness, even the First Lady wants us to do this!" Pretty much everyone understands, at least on a subconscious level, that anything the First Lady chooses to involve herself in is by definition wholesome, good, and beyond questioning.)
So it was wonderful to learn just before Thanksgiving that the First Lady was unveiling a new program to bring thousands of salad bars into schools. What could be better than that? Reading about it in Ed Bruske's "Slow Cook" blog, though, I was surprised to learn that three school systems had actively rejected this sensible fresh food program, and that one of them was – I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck before I finished the sentence – Montgomery County, MD! Apparently those "child safety" concerns were creeping up again – fears that sneeze guards won't work for the smaller elementary school children, or that they'll use their hands instead of tongs. And then there's some nonsense about portion control, as if the ability to accurately weigh spinach leaves should prevent one from making sure the kids get some spinach leaves in the first place. (Apparently the USDA just made clear that self-serve salad bars are indeed permissible for elementary schools – we'll see if this moves the naysayers in our system.)
So just as the lack of school gardens denies kids a chance to learn what food is or where it comes from, the unwillingness of a school system to consistently serve fresh, local food robs the kids of any real connection to the farms and farmers around them – a fundamental disruption in the natural food system that ultimately harms our health, our economy, and our planet. There are obviously many impediments to schools serving fresh food on a regular basis, but since school systems are often the largest institutional purchaser of food in a given county, they have more than a little power to change that.
Here in Montgomery County, for instance, we have the 16th largest school district in the country, serving meals to 140,000 kids every day, yet we simultaneously have a very large (93,000 acre) Agricultural Reserve that, while it has plenty of horse farms and tree nurseries, produces only the tiniest amount of food for consumption by the resident population, school children or anyone else. Does that make any earthly sense at all?
Farm-to-school programs are a great idea, and the $50 million in funding for them in the recently passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is a start, but it's still a relative drop in the bucket. Changing the practices of our public schools when it comes to food is going to take a lot of hard work, often one school at a time.
But there is a reasonable and sane starting point. Let's agree that fresh, healthy food – the ability to eat it, to participate in growing it, to know those who grow it for you – is a basic human right, in schools and everywhere else. If we can agree on that, then maybe we have a chance of reordering the rest of our dysfunctional fast food society to make it happen.
Short version? Members of Landscape Ontario, the province’s trade association representing the lawn industry, were pretty unhappy when they heard that A Chemical Reaction – the stirring documentary about the first town in Canada to ban lawn pesticides – was scheduled to be shown at the "Canada Blooms" show next March. They lobbied, proposed that the screening be cancelled, and won in a vote of the Board of Directors.
Landscape Ontario's response to the resulting outcry? In part,
We do not feel we should be politicizing or polarizing people at a garden show. Canada Blooms is meant to be a celebration of horticulture and floriculture. We are not against showing the film nor are we against free speach (sic) and debate. In fact we encourage it. We just do not feel that Canada Blooms is the correct venue for doing this.
If you'd like to weigh in, click the SafeLawns link above to see the full list of Canada Blooms directors – the people to complain to.
“It’s only very partially an object. It’s mostly a verb.”
That’s how Paula Hayes defines a terrarium, as you’ll see and hear in the video above. Hayes is known for a variety of botanical art endeavors, including landscapes and living sculptures that can take the form of necklaces, planters, bird feeders, and terrariums. Hayes is first an artist, who has a masters’ degree in sculpture from Parsons, but she supported herself as a gardener during her college years. After that, she started combining sculpture and gardening in objects that contain landscapes and landscapes that often contain objects—simple, poetic, ephemeral.
The terrariums are always hand-blown in spherical organic shapes, and are the most delicate and beautiful I have ever seen. Recently, Hayes accepted a challenge to think of forms that would complement the lobby of New York’s Musuem of Modern Art and came up with Nocturne of the Limax maximus, an installation containing two large-scale terrariums: Slug and Egg.
See it at MoMA, if you can; the installation runs through February 11.